Very often we receive requests from a relative, friend, colleague or former coworker, junior team members, students or even bosses to write a letter of recommendation.
Why’s that? Why would people who don’t even know you believe a recommendation letter from another unknown person?
Because a recommendation letter is not merely what it says. While it does serve as a sort of ‘guarantee’ that a jobseeker or candidate has good character or certain qualities and skills an employer is looking for, it has several more uses too.
Why Are Recommendation Letters Important?
Many employers request recommendation letters to help them decide who to hire or internally promote. Throughout the hiring process, the applicant strives to present herself in the best light. Beyond the interview and resume, hiring managers look to recommendation letters to confirm the candidate’s qualifications and to gain insight from an outside party.
The hiring manager wants to know what experiences the candidate will bring to the new role, how she’ll contribute to the company or organization, and how she’ll behave in the day-to-day. Recommendation letters can point to a candidate’s future performance by talking about her past achievements.
Reference letters can also shed light on what it’s like to manage, work with, or, in the case of a character reference, be friends with the person under consideration. They complement the candidate’s story and suggest what she’ll bring to the table in her next job.
If you get asked to write a letter for someone, it’s safe to assume you want to do a good job. Helping someone get hired is not just a satisfying good deed, but it’s also good professional karma! So how can you turn those good intentions into a stand-out employee letter of recommendation?
Each letter will, of course, be different, but good letters share certain key features. Read on to learn about three important characteristics of strong reference letters.
What Makes a Recommendation Letter Stand Out? 3 Key Features
Strong letters give positive descriptions of a candidate’s skills in a concise and powerful way. Beyond using language that’s clear and error-free, what elements should your recommendation letter include to be effective?
As you write your letter, make sure it does the following:
#1: Explains Why You’re Qualified to Recommend the Candidate
In order to hold weight, a recommendation letter should come from a reputable source. If an employer wants a professional reference, then the writer of that letter probably worked with the candidate in a supervisory capacity. Some employers will also be interested in letters from a colleague or, occasionally, a friend, neighbor, or family member. Most letters, though, will be written by a supervisor, manager, or boss of some sort.
In the first paragraph, you should explain who you are and how you know the candidate. How long did you work with her and in what capacity? By explaining your relationship, you show that you’re qualified to give an honest assessment.
If someone who feels like a relative stranger asks you to write a letter, you might consider declining or recommending someone else to write it. If you didn’t get to know the candidate’s work performance or only did so in a way completely unrelated to the new position, then you might not be able to provide a helpful letter of recommendation from employer to employee.
The best letters are written by people who can speak to the candidate’s skills and accomplishments. Make sure to state clearly in the beginning of your letter who you are and why your opinion matters.
#2: Customized to the New Position
While you should speak to the candidate’s accomplishments in her past role, you should also show why she’d make a good fit in the next one. Even if the candidate’s making a career change, you can explain why she’ll be able to do well in the new industry.
Here’s where open communication with the applicant is important. She should share the job description so you have a clear understanding of the position’s requirements. As the writer, you’re not expected to do much research on the new job. The candidate should provide you with everything you need to know to customize your letter.
By drawing on this information, you can express confidence that the candidate will succeed in the new role. Then when the hiring manager reads your letter, she’ll feel reassured that the candidate would make a good fit.
#3: Uses Specific Examples and Anecdotes
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, your letter should provide specific examples about the candidate. Don’t just list adjectives like, “friendly, intelligent, and hard-working”; instead, present circumstances in which the candidate demonstrated those qualities. To borrow a favorite phrase of English teachers, “show, don’t just tell.”
Not only will examples point to the value the candidate brought to your organization or company, but they’ll also paint a picture of how she works in day-to-day operations. Using two to three specific anecdotes in your letter will boost its level of persuasiveness. It will also sidestep a common rec letter trap: becoming a generic list of cliches.
Just as you should only write a recommendation letter if you feel qualified to assess the candidate, you should also only write it if you can provide a great one. While you don’t want to go over the top and sound insincere, your letter should be a strongly positive endorsement.
Sample Recommendation Letters
As you read through free job recommendation letters below, notice how they all share the three key features described above, even though they differ in terms of their source and target audience. Below are nine sample recommendation letters, each followed by an analysis of what it does well!
Sample Letter #1: Sara the Poet
Dear Admissions Committee,
I had the pleasure of teaching Sara in her 11th grade honors English class at Mark Twain High School. From the first day of class, Sara impressed me with her ability to be articulate about difficult concepts and texts, her sensitivity to the nuances within literature, and her passion for reading, writing, and creative expression- both in and out of the classroom. Sara is a talented literary critic and poet, and she has my highest recommendation as a student and writer.
Sara is talented at considering the subtleties within literature and the purpose behind authors’ works. She produced an extraordinary year-long thesis paper on creative identity development, in which she compared works from three different time periods and synthesized cultural and historical perspectives to inform her analysis. When called upon to give her thesis defense in front of her peers, Sara spoke clearly and eloquently about her conclusions and responded to questions in a thoughtful way. Outside of the classroom, Sara is dedicated to her literary pursuits, especially to poetry. She publishes her poetry in our school’s literary magazine, as well as in online magazines. She is an insightful, sensitive, and deeply self-aware individual driven to explore art, writing, and a deeper understanding of the human condition.
Throughout the year Sara was an active participant in our discussions, and she always supported her peers. Her caring nature and personality allow her to work well with others in a team setting, as she always respects others’ opinions even when they differ from her own. When we held a class debate about gun laws, Sara opted to speak for the side opposite her own views. She explained her choice as motivated by a desire to put herself in other people’s shoes, view the issues from a new perspective, and gain a clearer sense of the issue from all angles. Throughout the year, Sara demonstrated this openness to and empathy for the opinions, feelings, and perspectives of others, along with shrewd powers of observation, all qualities that makes her outstanding as a student of literature and burgeoning writer.
I am certain that Sara is going to continue to do great and creative things in her future. I highly recommend her for admission to your undergraduate program. She is talented, caring, intuitive, dedicated, and focused in her pursuits. Sara consistently seeks out constructive feedback so she can improve her writing skills, which is a rare and impressive quality in a high school student. Sara is truly a stand-out individual who will impress everyone she meets. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions at [email protected]
Mark Twain High School
This is a thorough, glowing recommendation for a student that Ms. Scribe clearly knows well. What other features make it stand out as a strong letter of rec?
Sample Letter #2: Stacy the Engineer
Dear Admissions Committee,
It is a great pleasure to recommend Stacy for admission to your engineering program. She is one of the most exceptional students I have encountered in my 15 years of teaching. I taught Stacy in my 11th grade honors physics class and advised her in Robotics Club. I am not surprised to find out she is now ranked at the top of an extraordinarily capable class of seniors. She has a keen interest in and talent for physics, math, and scientific inquiry. Her advanced skills and passion for the subject make her an ideal fit for your rigorous engineering program.
Stacy is a perceptive, sharp, quick individual with a high aptitude for math and science. She is driven to understand how things work, whether they be the old computer hard drives in the school library or the forces that hold our universe together. Her final project in class was especially impressive, an investigation of frequency-dependent sound absorption, an idea that she said was sparked by not wanting to bother her parents with her hours of guitar practice at home. She’s been a strong leader in Robotics Club, eager to share her knowledge with others and learn new skills. I have the students in the club prepare lessons and take turns leading our after-school meetings. When it was Stacy’s turn, she showed up prepared with a fascinating lecture on lunar nautics and fun activities that got everyone moving and talking. She was our only student teacher to be met with much deserved applause at the end of her lesson.
Stacy’s personal strengths are as impressive as her intellectual accomplishments. She’s an active, outgoing presence in class with a great sense of humor. Stacy’s the perfect person to get a group project rolling, but she also knows how to sit back and let others take the lead. Her cheerful nature and openness to feedback means she’s always learning and growing as a learner, an impressive strength that will continue to serve her well in college and beyond. Stacy is just the kind of driven, engaging, and curious student that helped make our classroom a lively environment and safe place to take intellectual risks.
Stacy has my highest recommendation for admission to your engineering program. She has demonstrated excellence in all that she puts her mind to, whether it’s designing an experiment, collaborating with others, or teaching herself to play classical and electrical guitar. Stacy’s endless curiosity, combined with her willingness to take risks, leads me to believe there will be no limit to her growth and achievements in college and beyond. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected] if you have any questions.
Marie Curie High School
Ms. Randall is clearly as much of a fan of Stacy as she is of Mileva Marić. How does she communicate her recommendation?
Sample Letter #3: William the History Buff and Social Organizer
Dear Admissions Committee,
It is hard to overstate the meaningful contributions that William has made to our school and surrounding community. As both his 10th and 11th grade History teacher, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing William make profound contributions both in and out of the classroom. His school and community service is motivated by a strong sense of social justice, which he informs through a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of historical trends and events. I can say with confidence that William is one of the most caring and driven students I’ve ever taught in my fifteen years at the school.
As a child of immigrant parents, William is especially drawn to understand the immigrant experience. He produced an extraordinary semester-long research paper on the treatment of Japanese-Americans in the U.S. during WWII, in which he went beyond all expectations to conduct Skype interviews with relatives of his featured subjects to incorporate into his paper. William has a great capacity to draw connections between past and present and to ground his understanding of current issues in the context of historical events. He never retreats to a simple answer or explanation, but is comfortable dealing with ambiguity. William’s fascination with U.S. and World History and skill for deep analysis have him an exemplary scholar, as a well as a motivated activist driven to promote civil rights and work towards social equity.
In sophomore year, William noticed that the college planning seminars students attended included little information for first generation or immigrant students. Always thinking about how institutions can better serve people, William spoke with counselors and ESL teachers about his ideas to better support all students. He helped collect resources and design a college planning curriculum for immigrant and undocumented students to enhance their college access. He further helped organize a group that connected ESL students with native English speakers, stating his mission to be helping ELLs improve their English and increasing multicultural awareness and social cohesion at the school as a whole. William identified a need and worked with students and faculty alike to meet it in an extremely effective and beneficial way. Ever the history scholar, he did plenty of research to back up his ideas.
William believes passionately in social progress and working for the common good. His own personal experiences, along with his profound grasp on social history, drive his advocacy work. He is a talented, intelligent student with the charisma, confidence, strong values, and respect for others to make a huge difference in the world around him. I’m looking forward to seeing all the good that William continues to do for his fellow humanity in college and beyond, as well as the excellent work that he will produce at the college level. William has my highest recommendation. If you have any questions, please contact me at [email protected]
Martin Luther King, Jr. High School
Mr. Jackson’s letter makes William sound like a pretty amazing student and person. How does he go about expressing his admiration for William in this rec letter?
Sample Letter #4: Joe the Hard Worker
Dear Admissions Committee,
It is my pleasure to recommend Joe, who I taught in my 11th grade math class. Joe demonstrated tremendous effort and growth throughout the year and brought a great energy to class. He has that combination of a positive attitude and the belief that he can always improve that’s rare in a high school student, but so essential to the learning process. I am confident that he will continue to display the same commitment and diligence in everything he does. I highly recommend Joe for admission to your school.
Joe would not describe himself as a math person. He’s told me on several occasions that all the numbers and variables make his mind go fuzzy. Joe did, in fact, struggle to comprehend the material at the beginning of the year, but his response to this is what really struck me. Where so many others have given up, Joe took on this class as a welcome challenge. He stayed after school for extra help, got extra tutoring at the nearby college, and asked questions in and out of class. Due to all his hard work, Joe not only raised his grades, but he also inspired some of his classmates to stay after for extra help, as well. Joe truly demonstrated a growth mindset, and he inspired his peers to adopt that valuable perspective, too. Joe helped contribute to our classroom environment as one where all students can feel supported and able to ask questions.
Joe’s strong belief in his ability to acquire new skills and improve through practice was likely shaped by his years as a baseball player. He’s played all through high school and is one of the team’s most valuable players. In his final for our class, Joe designed an impressive project calculating and analyzing batting averages. While he initially described himself as not a math person, Joe reaped the benefits of his tremendous effort and found a way to make the subject come alive for him in a way that he was personally invested in. As a teacher, it is incredibly fulfilling to witness a student make this kind of academic and personal progress.
Joe is a trustworthy, reliable, good-humored student and friend who supports others in and out of the classroom. He was a pleasure to have in class, and his positive attitude and belief in himself, even in the face of difficulty, is an immensely admirable asset. I’m confident that he will continue to demonstrate the same diligence, perseverance, and optimism that he showed myself and his peers. I highly recommend Joe for admission to your undergraduate program. Please feel free to contact me with any further questions at [email protected]
Euclid High School
While the students featured in the first three examples were top of their class or demonstrated leadership in the school, Joe isn’t a top achiever in the traditional sense. However, this recommendation is still a strong one, even if it says he struggled in the teacher’s class. What does Mr. Wiles focus on to recommend Joe?
Other Letters of Recommendation
In some instances, a bank or financial organization might ask for this letter to provide a loan or finance some purchase.
This isn’t common practice in India, though it’s done in some foreign countries. Be careful before you recommend anyone for a loan or credit: you could end up owning their liabilities if they default.
Also in some countries, people applying for senior managerial or supervisory posts have to get this letter from their juniors.
That’s done to ensure the person has total control over the power an organization invests in them. This prevents the abuse of powers.
However, these are fairly uncommon in India, though the trend may appear here anytime, given the penchant for Indians to copy foreign systems. Therefore, it’s better to be aware of these trends.
Before I wrap up, here’s something to remember.
A recommendation letter is an indirect guarantee of the person’s capabilities as a worker and personality as a human.
Therefore, project a proper picture rather than going overboard to please someone or playing too carefully to avoid problems. The above tips would definitely help you draft amazing letters of recommendation for anyone.